Girls who give Sky high kicks: Owen Slot meets a team of dancers who have charmed their way through many a defence
Thursday 22 April 1993
The Arsenal crowd gave them a rough time. When the Strikers ran out at Highbury stadium on 28 September, the crowd booed; when they ran off, the crowd booed again. In between, when the girls were dancing, all spins and high kicks, there emanated from the stands the chant: 'Get your tits out for the boys.' That chant followed them round the country during the season.
At the Arsenal game, the Strikers, unwittingly, were wearing white with a touch of blue and yellow - pretty close to the strip of Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal's arch rivals - and thus there came the volley of abuse usually reserved for Spurs fans: 'Yiddoes, Yiddoes'. The Arsenal fans went one better when the Strikers returned three months later, wearing white with a touch of red, pretty much Arsenal's own strip: their chant changed to, 'Are you Yiddoes in disguise?'.
In fact, several of the Strikers are. Tottenham fans, that is. Karen's father is Dave Butler, the Spurs physiotherapist; another of the girls, Wendy, is still being teased about her disappointment at the start of the season when the Strikers' appearance at White Hart Lane, Tottenham's ground, was cancelled due to bad weather; and then there is Debbie, Wendy's elder sister, who is captain of the team and married to their choreographer, Peyton Martin.
The Strikers are all professional dancers and take other assignments (dancing jobs, fashion shows, television commercials). They each make around pounds 200 per performance. The youngest is 18, the oldest 33.
Debbie is a calm leader of women. When she manages to make herself heard over her noisy pack, there is all-round agreement that they are generally oblivious to the sexist chants from the terraces, saying it goes straight over their heads. 'I don't mind the 'Get your tits out',' says Debbie. 'If I had them, I'd show 'em]' In fact, says Sandy, another of the more experienced dancers, they have a planned riposte up their sleeves: a routine where they would all wear fake chests and rip them off in the middle of a number.
Sandy's experience goes beyond the dancefloor: she trained as a stuntwoman, she can fence, baton-twirl and springboard-dive, and she sings on an independent record label based in south London.
At a Norwich game, Sandy spotted three girls swearing at her. As they became more hostile, the obscenities got worse. Eventually they ran down to the side of the pitch as if to make for her. At the last minute, security guards stepped in. But Sandy had momentarily faced a dilemma: should she run or stand her ground? What her would-be assailants didn't know was that Sandy was an accomplished martial artist and could have done them real damage.
With the possibility of such an extreme reaction from female fans, you can't help questioning whether dancing girls are quite the tonic required for the predominantly male English football audience. When the Strikers have danced in front of rugby league fans, the reaction has been noisy but polite. The London Monarchs' American football fans gave an enthusiastic reception to a similar show from their cheerleaders, the Crown Jewels, two of whom are now Sky Strikers. But football fans? They riot in Sweden and invade pitches in Manchester, and are unlikely to appreciate the difference between a demi-plie and a Demi Moore. The point, says Raymond Jaffe, who commissions the entertainment for Sky Sports, is to bring 'an entertainment angle that is different to the norm', to make matches an event rather than a 90-minute game of football. He has seen how it works in the United States and believes that this is the way to bring families into British football grounds.
Pop groups were tried unsuccessfully - the Shamen were booed at Arsenal, Curiosity were on to a loser at Southampton where they decided to play in Chelsea shirts - but the Strikers have been regulars all season. Mr Jaffe is convinced they are part of a formula that has seen Monday-night crowds on average 13 per cent up on the clubs' normal attendances. Some clubs have asked how they can organise similar entertainment on a regular basis. Sky Sports, meanwhile, has been fielding fan mail from seven-year-olds asking how they can become Sky Strikers.
On Monday afternoon, the Strikers were preparing for their Ipswich Town debut, in a game against Norwich. They were a little nervous, but confident. Northern crowds, Blackburn especially, have been their most appreciative, but Norwich is also a favourite: the reverse fixture, Norwich vs Ipswich in December, was one of their most successful, despite Sandy's experience.
The weekend had been spent learning new routines - they do three numbers, two new ones per match - and after nearly three days together (for the rest of the week they do whatever other work comes their way) there is still a lot of noise, a lot of laughter. Do their husbands and boyfriends mind them being booked up at weekends? 'Who cares?' says Suzanne. More laughter.
Suzanne is the joker of the pack, insisting that she is the biggest eater, and reminding everyone of their Christmas party when she asked Andy Gray, the Sky Sports football commentator and former Scotland international, if he'd played much football before. Again, peals of laughter, but none of the cattiness you might expect from a group together for so long. They are a united bunch; to a person, they believe that Chris Waddle should be playing for England. There is just the odd faint moan: from the Spurs fans about Arsenal's victory in the Coca-Cola Cup Final the previous day.
At 7pm it is time for the first number. There are still 45 minutes until kick-off but already there is something of a crowd, many of whom say they have come early for the pre- match entertainment. The dancing goes down well, especially with an impressive firework display behind it; then there is Bart Simpson, who brings the home supporters to their feet when he runs down the touchline holding up an Ipswich shirt, and the show is complete with the arrival of the Red Devils parachutists.
By the time their half-time session arrives, the girls are relaxed in the knowledge that the crowd is enjoying it - almost as responsive as Blackburn. The supporters sang through a lot of the dancing, but no breast requests today. The Strikers wouldn't have minded anyway.
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